I found out on Facebook that you had died. You weren’t old, not as I remember you, what, seven summers back. You had described your face, when we planned to first meet at the train station in Orléans, as mottled, splotched with a skin disorder, and, as if a side thought, you said you’d come wearing a priest’s collar. You arrived in the small, erratic Renault. A year before, you’d fallen ill with an infection of the inner ear, whose indecipherable spinning flung you out of control, and once that waned, you had been terrified to drive again. You told me this, as you drove me, breakneck, the first time, down the black ribbon of a French road.
What with the collar, I called you Father. Father Frank. Formal name, Francis. We docked in a small circle of dirt before a collapsing barn, of sorts, which you had filled with books. They were books you had shipped all this way from Hawaii, where you once lived. They were boxes unopened, though you had plans for them. You wanted to build a conservatory, an open library, in your rented house. Already, you said, you had shelved 10,000 books. From the barn to your house we walked and I entered the room myself. The shelves were nine feet high. Many of the books were in French: Simone Weil; Max Jacob; the Surrealists; Derrida; and there were English counterparts to these, mostly poetry I loved.
I found out you had died and I have not thought of you in years. But now, as I write this to you, who are nowhere, the quiet comes back. It was a town called St. Benoit-sur-Loire. It was the town Max Jacob came to in the late 20s, after he had converted from Judaism to Catholicism. It was the town from which he’d be interned to Drancy, a detention center outside of Paris, in 1944. A roommate of Picasso at the turn of the 20th century, Jacob wrote tiny Cubist prose poems. He was a symbolist fifty years too late. He came to this town and lived with the monks in its Benedictine Abbey, and then as a boarder in a dentist’s home—next door to your library-house—a Dr. Perrine, I believe it was. When I stayed with you in St. Benoit-sur-Loire, I had come all that way to be with Jacob’s ghost, his grave with mounds of pebbles in remembrance in Fleury. But now: I think of you as ghost, as deportee, in the same way.
All that summer, you came and went. Buying and bringing back books. Shelving and cataloguing, spending hours in the hot, moldy barn. I don’t know how the books didn’t catch fire, or wilt. Or you would be gone for a week, and I would spend my mornings at the one small café in the town center, dipping a croissant into a bitter, strangely thick coffee. Afterwards I’d go to the cathedral.
It was a Romanesque. The nave split two halves of pews, and like a crucifix opened into two transepts before the altar. Behind the altar, the apse. The high ceiling held mostly empty space, arching above my head like two interlaced hands. There was a feeling of something being crushed, and some other part—some part of me—exalted. I described it to you as a cathedral effect. It is the way certain architecture uses spaciousness to quiet one part of the mind, or humble its rambling complaints, while in another part of the body, we’ll call that the imagination, a wideness, a with-ness, is possible.
A feeling of spaciousness may be as important to a poem as the high ceiling interlaced hands of the cathedral. I come to a poem to crush my ego, surely not to inflate it. And while it is ornamented with sound, image, traditional (or non-traditional) form, correspondences, stories written on its walls, allusions to past masters, and certainly assays from its altar, a poem by necessity must create profound, sublime spaciousness and silence. A poem of 14 lines or so must stay with the reader, long after it’s been read. When I say, “I’m haunted by this poem,” I mean I’m crushed by its spaciousness, the porous quality, its mysteries, which are exactly what keep it alive in me. Dickinson writes “When it comes—the landscape listens—shadows hold their breath,” and a hundred and sixty years later I stand before the chasm of that line, aligned with a thought that transcends my own life. What is the certain slant of light? I can’t know what it is, I say to the chasm, but I am it.
What we call mystery in a poem has a lot to do with the space offered between two contradictory images, or the leaping from thought to thought without editorializing or explaining. The use of punctuation and syntax can affect spaciousness in a poem. So can a consistent line length or rhyme or meter (all of which impose a stone wall to contain all this mystery, uncertainty). In these ways, we might call the following poem by C.D. Wright very spacious:
Everything Good Between Men and Women
has been written in mud and butter
and barbecue sauce. The walls and
the floors used to be gorgeous.
The socks off-white and a near match.
The quince with fire blight
but we get two pints of jelly
in the end. Long walks strengthen
the back. You with a fever blister
and myself with a sty. Eyes
have we and we are forever prey
to each other’s teeth. The torrents
go over us. Thunder has not harmed
anyone we know. The river coursing
through us is dirty and deep. The left
hand protects the rhythm. Watch
your head. No fires should be
unattended. Especially when wind. Each
receives a free swiss army knife.
The first few tongues are clearly
preparatory. The impression
made by yours I carry to my grave. It is
just so sad so creepy so beautiful.
Bless it. We have so little time
to learn, so much…The river
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.
John Keats called negative capability one’s skill to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Wright’s poem does this merely by setting the mundane (“Cover the lettuce”) and the emergency (“We have so little time/to learn, so much…”) unapologetically side-by-side. It is the crossing of the vertical and horizontal states of mind, hard pew where suddenly we are told to sit: “O soul. Flow on. Instead.” Meanwhile leading up to these surprisingly abstract, and notably spiritual imperatives, Wright’s poem is a litany of leaping thoughts and recollections. A monkey mind running over the immanent and the eternal. What begins with barbecue sauce and quince, soon includes a “river courses dirty and deep.” The expansive self—not the ego, with its desire to evaluate and compartmentalize—is with us here; with all of it, witnessing it all, like one of Rilke’s angels, and it just “flows on” judging nothing, participating invisibly in everything.
Father, forgive that I was out of touch. It was a long and hot summer of me running from the house to the sunflower fields, to the path along the Loire, where one day I thought I saw a woman from the 17th century bending over to pick up something she had dropped from her basket. There was too much wine; there was always too much wine then. One night we argued, I don’t remember over what. You had lost your best friend, another priest, also named David, a runner. He had died of cancer. He wasn’t old. I had assumed you were together. You got angry, and the next morning we didn’t speak of it again. I was nervous to drive with you. Strange silences when I would say hello in the morning, then leave to do my work. I didn’t come downstairs to dinner after the third week. When you went to bed I would circle down the steps again, spend hours in the library, looking through the books you’d lovingly placed there for the no one, besides me, who came.
A few years later my mother was dying. In the narrow window between the end of one effective cancer treatment and the beginning of another, ineffective one, she traveled with me in rare good health to Paris. I didn’t get in touch, though I thought of St. Benoit-sur-Loire as we visited the cathedrals lighting candles and standing on the thousand year old, knee-molded, shoe-kneaded floors as if on a wave that had gone suddenly still. I learned everything I needed to know about spaciousness from you. Your love of books and silence. And now this great spaciousness between us, what had been once a friendship. I am writing you, and at the same time I’m writing a message to myself. How to sit with that space—called uncertainty—without any grasping toward logic or reason. When my mother was dying, I felt a porousness in time and space, her life increasingly far and diminishing, and also, as if by some unexplainable sleight, expanding before my eyes:
In the padlocked trunk before they dropped him
in the river, Houdini was said to foresee
his mother’s death. Stuck in his box, at the end
of a chain, he felt the death, its approach,
her worry growing smaller at the eyes as she
removed herself from herself, her body shrunken
to the size of a keyhole. I believe that grief
can travel distances like that. My mother’s
cough would wake me up at night, two hundred
miles away. That was a year ago, before she
got too small. She drowned in a cloud
of bright white baby hair. She lay on the bed
as if on a board, the last I saw her, still and calm.
Then truly as if a lever were pulled, she tipped
backward, out of view.
The last time I saw you, you were pulling out of the driveway at St. Benoit, nervous behind the wheel, a barn of unpacked boxes disintegrating in the backdrop. It was a beautiful day. There were horses on the farm a little ways beyond that road you were about to travel. When I would pass them on my run, sometimes they would meet me at the fence, with the small black cape flapping behind them, each in a hood that obscured the peripheries. You drove off and left me there with your entire fortune, which I did not have the time to read. There had been too much of it. I imagined you driving into that field, past the river and the sunflowers, the whole world still with you, encouraging you, the horses keeping up alongside.
A Prompt or Two
- Write a poem that is one sentence long, with no punctuation, describing something that is in the process of being lost. It can be something in the environment, a dying elm, or it can be a person’s life, or a species: the poem should be, in length, the same as Wright’s. The mere acknowledgment of the process without intercession or comment is enough to offer space, offering the reader a chance participate.
- Write a poem that tells two stories, but do not seek to explain too much the connection between the two. After telling one, perhaps apocryphal story (e.g., the Houdini tale in “Magic”), tell another personal story. Each of the two stories should have three leaps in them, and the poem should be fifteen lines long.
- Use a tight formal construct to describe the great distance between two people or two places, or some fact of the physical world that seems impossible (for example, at the quantum level, things are made of mostly empty space). Using Wright’s short sentences with no stanza breaks and a good deal of enjambment, crowd in all that spaciousness with some cathedral walls.
Keplinger, David. “Magic.” Another City. Milkweed Editions: Minneapolis, MN. 2018.
Wright, C.D. “Everything Good between Men and Women.” Steal Away: New and Selected Poems. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA. 2002.
Photo credit: Czarina Divinagracia
David Keplinger is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Another City (Milkweed Editions, 2018). His other books include The Most Natural Thing: Prose Poems (2013) and The Prayers of Others (2006), which won the Colorado Book Award. He has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cavafy Prize from Poetry International, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and other honors. Keplinger teaches at American University in Washington, D.C.